Linguistics News

Posted on April 18, 2011

There were 2 ‘major’ pieces of linguistic news this week. The first was the realization that all modern languages are descended from one ‘proto’ language. The second that there is no universal, innate word order.

The first article is not really news. How do I know this? My Junior year of college, I gave a presentation about how linguistic data supports common accepted theories about human migration. Although I think the radical movement to create this ‘proto language’ is just silly, historical linguistics is cool and interesting. Here’s a way to think about this: We are all descended from people who all spoke the same language. Just to throw some fuel on your fire, read that first article and then read this one.

The second one is actually news, and is one of those tiny strings that is tugging at the house of cards that is modern linguistic theory. In short, this study says that there is no universal formula how word order evolves in different language families.

Let’s understand this in context. A long time ago, in a far away place called MIT in the 1950′s, a super-genius by the name of Noam Chompsky came up with a theory called generative grammar. Again, I am WAY over-generalizing here. This theory says that in each brain there is a basic ‘language structure’. Each language is simply a way of interpreting that structure.

This recent study is basically saying ‘nu-uh’. And is using some pretty convincing evidence. Now, let me introduce you to the lame world that is politics in linguistic academia. For about 40 years, just about everything new that comes out of linguistics came from Chomsky himself or from a disciple of Chomsky. Then UC San Diego started doing what’s called Cognitive Linguistics. While Chomsky (representing the stodgy East coast) was all about natural order and stuff like that, UCSD was all, no way man, your brain doesn’t work that way. We’re all one glowing ball of happiness! Cognitive linguistics is awesome, but there is no universal rule. It’s just a bunch of guys who think language is much more interesting than rules. Long story short, this is a major battle in the war between generative grammar and the hippies.

In that hippy camp is psycholinguistics. They really study the synapses that fire to create language. It’s very good science, they do things empirically. And they are the first ones to study the evolution of word order.

Again, context. Everybody in India and Europe (with a few notable exceptions) speaks a language that is descended from a theoretical ‘proto-language’. At some point all of the languages became phonetically distinct (they sounded different). What is mind-blowing is that they all changed in very similar ways. Aspirated ‘b’s became unaspirated b’s became ps became fs. And so on. Everywhere. In England, Italy and India. Long story short, there was a pattern that was similar across all families.

A similar pattern was not found syntactically in this most recent study. I’m going to try to read more about this in the next week or so. If I find anything, I’ll let you know. Nerds.


» Filed Under Linguistics


One Response to “Linguistics News”

  1. Paul Salomon on April 18th, 2011 11:29 am


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